Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Halfway into his presidency, Lebanon's Michel Aoun has failed to live up to expectations

The president filled a vacuum – but his many shortcomings have led some to question whether he is up to the job

Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Hussein Malla / pool via Reuters
Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Hussein Malla / pool via Reuters

At the end of October, Lebanese president Michel Aoun will reach the halfway point in his six-year presidential term. This allows for a preliminary assessment of what has been achieved during his presidency and what has not.

On the plus side, Mr Aoun’s election helped fill a vacuum after years in which Lebanon was without a president, as the political forces in the country could not agree on a compromise candidate. His election allowed for the formation of a new government, which, for all its many shortcomings, returned a sense of normality to a country that had been without an effective executive since 2014.

Mr Aoun also came to office thanks to a political agreement concluded with his former rival Saad Hariri. Their understanding was that Mr Hariri’s parliamentary bloc would support Mr Aoun’s election, in exchange for the president backing Mr Hariri’s return to the post of prime minister. This new alignment suggested that old foes had reconciled and that a new spirit of amity would prevail in Lebanon. The reality was different.

At best, Mr Aoun could have strengthened his role by acting as a mediator between those two communities, but the idea of reaffirming Maronite power thorough the presidency was unrealistic

When Mr Aoun took office, he brought with him as foreign minister his ambitious son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who has used his ties to the president to pave the way for his own election to the presidency. Mr Bassil is the son Mr Aoun never had and the president has facilitated his rise – as leader of the Free Patriotic Movement that Mr Aoun founded, but also as an influential minister who has become a power broker in the formation of governments.

Mr Bassil’s tactic has been to play on Christian populist fears to enhance his power. He has heightened sectarian tensions in the country, on the assumption that this would rally Christians to his side. However, such an approach has also represented a downside for the Aoun presidency. It has divided the political class and created an alliance of political actors who share a determination to prevent Mr Bassil from succeeding his father-in-law.

The foreign minister has also alienated Mr Hariri to an extent by exploiting the prime minister’s weaknesses, something evident during the cabinet formation process. This lost the prime minister support from within his own Sunni community, even if he and Mr Bassil have collaborated in taking control of patronage networks, often to the detriment of other politicians such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. All this has turned the foreign minister into a lightning rod for the discontent prevailing in Lebanon today as economic conditions deteriorate.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun with Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters
Lebanese President Michel Aoun with Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

In fact, last month Mr Bassil sought to tour Lebanese regions to bolster his presidential credentials. His visit to the Chouf mountains, which Mr Jumblatt dominates, was a disaster. Mr Bassil planned to visit a town where Druze had been massacred during the civil war and meet a religious figure close to Mr Jumblatt’s main rival Talal Arslan, a highly divisive move. He was prevented by Mr Jumblatt’s followers from doing so and in the ensuing tensions, two bodyguards working for Saleh Al Gharib, a minister close to Mr Arslan, were killed, leading to weeks of political deadlock.

By effectively becoming a stand-in for the president, who is in his mid-80s, Mr Bassil has unintentionally helped to undermine the presidency. He has cast a shadow over Mr Aoun's leadership and made him appear somewhat irrelevant.

When Mr Aoun was seeking to become president, he vowed to return the role to the position of power it once was. This was an illusion. Under the constitutional changes agreed in 1989, the powers of Lebanon’s presidents were greatly curtailed. As the Maronite Christian community, from which presidents are chosen, has declined demographically, Lebanon has largely been defined by Sunni-Shia dynamics. So at best, Mr Aoun could have strengthened his role by acting as a mediator between those two communities, but the idea of using the presidency to reaffirm Maronite power was unrealistic.

Nor has Mr Aoun enhanced the powers of the state, as he once promised. Hezbollah remains a formidable military force in the country, at the expense of the state and the army. Mr Aoun has only reinforced this unhealthy relationship by defending Hezbollah, forgetting that his political rise began when, as army commander, he challenged militia power during the civil war years.

Mr Aoun has continued to publicly endorse Hezbollah, despite the US sanctioning of three Hezbollah officials, including two parliamentarians, last month. At a time when Lebanon is facing a major economic crisis, such a stance seems reckless, as the US rationale for imposing sanctions could just as easily be applied to Lebanon’s banking sector and the army as well, which would be catastrophic.

However, Mr Aoun seems oddly detached about the existential threats Lebanon faces. Whether it is the economy or the prospect of war with Israel, both of which would be devastating, the president has given no assurances he is up to the job. Instead there is a widespread sense that the country is adrift, the economy is on the verge of meltdown and the state is as corrupt as it is absent. That is what is defining Mr Aoun’s term, which today has the whiff of failure.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut

Updated: August 21, 2019 06:01 PM

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